Discover must-visit UNESCO World Heritage sites across the country.
Established in 1945, UNESCO was created to promote the preservation of natural and cultural sites that have had a significant impact on the formation of society. Today, there are more than 1,000 sites throughout the world that are recognized as UNESCO World Heritage sites, and 22 of them are located within the United States. These wonders range from iconic national parks to lesser-known historic buildings, but they are all outstanding examples of the natural history and societal development that make America unique.
La Fortaleza and San Juan National Historic Site in Puerto Rico
Stretching along the western edge of San Juan, Puerto Rico's capital island city, this national historic site was built between the 16th and 18th centuries by Spanish conquistadors. La Fortaleza, which translates to strength or fortress, is the oldest European construction in the U.S. Intended to protect the strategic Caribbean island from incoming attacks, the fortress is now the home of the Puerto Rican governor. The site also includes El Morro on the western tip of the island, as well as Castillo de San Cristóbal to the east. UNESCO designates this site's importance as a transfer of military architecture technology from Europe to the Americas.
Mesa Verde National Park
In 1906, Mesa Verde became the first national park of its kind. Instead of protecting natural wonders, former President Theodore Roosevelt established this park of more than 5,000 archaeological sites to "preserve the works of man." Located in southwest Colorado, Mesa Verde (or "green table") is a prehistoric Pueblo community, with sites ranging from farming structures to 600 cliff dwellings. These extraordinarily well-preserved abodes remained untouched until the late 17th century, when cowboys happened upon them while searching for stray cattle. Classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978, Mesa Verde National Park continues to give insight into how Pueblo people lived before the establishment of the American Southwest.
Statue of Liberty
Since 1886, when France gifted the sculpture to the United States, the Statue of Liberty has welcomed immigrants and travelers to New York Harbor with an upstretched arm and golden torch. Standing approximately 22 stories tall, the copper neoclassical sculpture was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984 for its symbolic significance. Not only does it signify the formation of an alliance between America and France, but since its installation, Lady Liberty has promoted the ideals of democracy, opportunity and freedom to all who see her. Today, visitors can see the iconic statue by ferry or climb the 377 steps to the crown for panoramic views from the observation deck.
Everglades National Park
Spanning 1.5 million acres on the Florida peninsula, Everglades National Park protects a vast, intricate ecosystem composed of freshwater and saltwater wetlands. The variety of marshes, seagrasses and forests provide stunning examples of biological processes, including 750 kinds of native seed-bearing plants. The park also acts as a sanctuary for native wildlife, especially threatened species such as the West Indian manatee, the American crocodile and the Florida panther. Rising sea levels have taken their toll on parts of the ecosystem in recent decades, and subsequently this UNESCO site is the only one in the U.S. designated as endangered.
Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site
Located 10 miles east of downtown St. Louis, near Collinsville, Illinois, the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site gives visitors insight into how Native Americans lived near the Mississippi River. The largest pre-Columbian settlement north of Mexico, Cahokia showcases how the ancient society used communal agriculture and an economic hierarchy long before Europeans arrived. At its peak in A.D. 1250, the civilization was home to an estimated 20,000 people; today, about 50 man-made mounds still stand. A must-see for visitors is the Monk Mound; covering 14 acres, it is the largest man-made earth mound in North America.
The site where the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were signed, Independence Hall clearly holds extreme importance to American history, but its impact has been much greater than the forefathers may have expected. UNESCO designated this Philadelphia landmark as a World Heritage Site in 1979, pointing out that the fundamental elements of American government – the right to freedom and democracy – continue to influence lawmakers and leaders around the world. Today, you can visit the birthplace of America and stand in the Assembly Room where the tenets of these two founding documents were debated, drafted and signed.
Mammoth Cave National Park
Halfway between Nashville, Tennessee, and Louisville, Kentucky, you'll find the largest and longest known cave system in the world. Mammoth Cave National Park encompasses more than 400 miles of complex underground systems that feature almost every type of cave formation. Along with stalagmites and stalactites, more than 130 species of cave-dwelling wildlife can be found in the underground labyrinth, including screech owls and eyeless fish. Scientists estimate that the hollows date back 100 million years, making it a unique site to witness earth's evolution and geological history like few other places in the world.
San Antonio Missions
Labeled a World Heritage Site in 2015, the San Antonio Missions give a window into the Spanish colonization of Texas. The site contains five individual missions, including Mission Valero – more famously known as the Alamo – nestled along the banks of the San Antonio River. Built during the 1700s, these remarkably well-preserved structures were intended to facilitate Native Americans' conversion to Catholicism, but also created self-efficient, multiethnic communities. Today, the missions collectively represent the entwining of cultures that laid the groundwork for America to become a melting pot of cultures.